Contigo, San Francisco

Spain is one of my favorite gastronomic destinations. Its food is outstanding in absolute simplicity–like a slice of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota; or in the ever-evolving complexity of avant-garde molecular gastronomy.

And even though only 2 restaurants there made to No Salad, Arzak and Asador Etxebarri, many more live brightly in my memory. Among them, countless tapas and pintxos bars in Madrid, Bilbao, San Sebastian and Barcelona. On my last trip to Spain earlier this year, small plates were the bulk of my diet. How can you resist?

The neatly arranged arrays of bite-sized treats and appetizing tapas menus will make any foodie feel like a bride to be entering Tiffany to pick her engagement ring. The variety and approachability of small portions is an invitation to never stop eating. A feast of deliciousness in all kinds of carbs, fats, and proteins. But after 3 days, I began to crave something green. My kingdom for a broccoli! Let’s just say vegetables are not as popular in Spain, at least not in tapas bars. After each bite of chorizo frito dripping with oil and queso fundido melted on a slice of bread, I couldn’t help but long for San Francisco’s passion for organic produce. Only if I could have both.

Welcome to Contigo. The Noe Valley brainchild of Elan Drucker and Brett Emerson (Greens, LuLu, and Chez Panisse) is a much-welcomed addition to the city’s dining scene. This is not the only Spanish tapas restaurant in San Francisco but it’s the first one to get me excited about.

The lively atmosphere is welcoming. Its design, homey and modern with juxtapositions of warm redwood and dark concrete, patterned banquettes and stainless steal.

Reservations are only taken for parties of 6 or more but walk-in guests can choose between dining room tables, counter seats or a heated back patio surrounded by a vegetable garden and the firewood that feeds the restaurant’s oven.

With Brett running the kitchen and Elan managing the front of the house, service is friendly and sharp. The well-trained wait staff has the much-appreciated honesty of recommending dishes and wines based on what you like, not what the restaurant wants to sell.

The menu

Contigo’s menu features 10 appetizers including Spanish cheeses and artisanal hams (from $2 to $9). The restaurant claims to be the only place in the city you can order Jamón Ibérico de Belotta, the Kobe beef of hams ($29). There are 17 small plates ($6 to $12) and 4 or so entrée-sized options ($14 to $24). On the back of the menu, purveyors are proudly listed–a nod to San Francisco’s sustainable locavorism.

The meal

Dining at Contigo is a social experience. Dishes are meant for sharing; think of it as a continuous tasting menu or a series of conversation starters. The more you try, the more you want to go back to try more. You may not find Spanish staples like Gazpacho, Sangria or Gambas a la plancha but Emerson’s small plates are a fresh take on classic Iberian dishes

Before I wrote this review, I visited the restaurant 3 times. The following are some of my favorite dishes.

Pa amb Tomàquet – Catalunya’s National snack of toasted bread, tomato, olive oil. Crunchy, toasted to order firebrand bread topped with sweet tomato sauce.

Add Anchoas del Cantábrico for a special treat. Three fillets of the world’s finest cured anchovies imported from Cantabria.

Torta de la serena – raw sheep’s milk, soft ripened. A delicious gooey Spanish cheese from Extremadura served with Membrillo (quince paste), bread and hazelnuts.

Pork belly bocadillo with harissa allioli, pickled onions, chips. Presented like a miniature burger, accompanied by nickel-sized spiced chips, this is a very tasty dish in which the tender and fatty pork belly is further enriched by the flavorful allioli. If you are planning on sharing, order more than one.

Oxtail croquetas with pine nuts, raisings, Martin’s mizuna. Deep-fried croquettes filled with tender braised oxtail. Perfectly cooked, rich and juicy inside and crispy outside.

Albóndigas – pork and jamón meatballs in tomato sherry sauce. Mild meatballs in a tasty tomato sauce.

Calamares and pimientos de pardon a ala plancha. Tasty and tender, seasoned with lemon and olive oil.

Sardine and roasted eggplant escalivada toasts from our wood oven. The Fresh sardines are nicely complemented by the acidity of pickled onions and tasty eggplant.

Pulpo salad with cucumbers, pickled lipstick peppers, onions, capers, mint. A perfect summer salad of tender octopus and refreshing flavors.

Whatever you order, make sure to leave some room for dessert. Contigo’s sweets are sure to end any meal on a high note.

Chocolate caliente – cup of thick, rich Barcelona-style chocolate con churros. Let me be clear, this is no ordinary hot chocolate. This is a decadent liquid ganache of good quality chocolate served hot. Kept in constant stir and at a precise temperature, the drink is served with crispy churros that are, listen to this, fried to order and sprinkled with sugar crystals and a pinch of salt to highlight its flavors. This is a dessert (often a breakfast dish) I can’t resist ordering when in Spain. Contigo’s is second to none. One of the best desserts in San Francisco.

Dirty Girl strawberries in an almond meringue nest with crema fresca. Season’s peak strawberries served with whipped cream and crunchy meringue.

Flam – catalan-style vanilla custard with salted caramel. Deliciously creamy and tasty, Contigo’s flam is also exceptional.

In short

With a lively, welcoming atmosphere and a menu fit for casual diners and foodies, Contigo brings together Spanish flavors and San Francisco sensibility. It's like eating in Spain and feeling at home. In the Best of No Salad list, no restaurant made to the top on the Best small plates category. I’m happy to say that spot is now taken.

Contigo is at 1320 Castro Street
For reservations (6 or more) 415.285.0250

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